Santa Rosa Woman Found Guilty Of 2nd Degree Murder In Deadly Road Rage Crash

SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — Several of the jurors who convicted Heather Howell of second-degree murder Friday afternoon said they had no doubt the prosecution proved its case against the Santa Rosa defendant.

“We looked at the facts and only the facts and evidence. They told us what happened. What she did met the criteria for murder,” juror Audrey Whitbeck of Petaluma said.

Howell was convicted of killing Jesse Garcia, 56, of Santa Rosa when her Acura struck Garcia’s Triumph convertible while she was chasing her boyfriend Tony Kraus on his motorcycle on Hall Road around 4:45 p.m. on July 14, 2012. The Triumph overturned and caught fire, trapping Garcia beneath it.

Howell was convicted a year ago of felony reckless driving and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in connection with the crash, but that jury deadlocked 9-3 on a second-degree murder charge.

The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office decided to retry Howell for second-degree murder. She will be sentenced on all three charges from both trials on Nov. 19.

In her closing argument Wednesday, defense attorney Kristine Burk asked the panel to consider the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.  Burk said Howell’s conduct might have been “reckless, thoughtless, tragic and even criminal,” but it was not murder.

Burk told the jury Howell was hysterical at the crash site and put her arm into the burning Triumph to try to reach Garcia.

“She didn’t drive away. She stayed,” Burk said.

Burk said Howell was exhausted from visiting her mother in the hospital and wanted Kraus to go back to the hospital with her on July 14.  When Kraus left her house instead, Howell felt abandoned and chased after him hoping he would change his mind, Burk said.

Howell chased after Kraus on his motorcycle at speeds up to 76 mph for 5.3 miles on Piner, Fulton and Hall Roads west of Santa Rosa after the two had an argument, according to trial testimony.

Deputy District Attorney Anne Masterson presented evidence that Howell drove through red lights and stop signs and in the opposite lane and shoulder of the roads prior to sideswiping a Lexus and crashing into the Triumph ahead of her.

Masterson told the jury Wednesday that Howell acted with conscious disregard for human life and had used marijuana the day of the crash.  Howell’s blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent later that afternoon, Masterson said.

Masterson said Howell was previously convicted of misdemeanor DUI and was informed by a judge she could be charged with murder if she killed someone while driving drunk again.

“She knew the risks but she just didn’t care,” Masterson told the jury.

Whitbeck and juror Don Reed, of Windsor, said Howell showed no remorse during an interview with a sheriff’s detective after the crash.

“Her tears (during the trial) were for being on trial and not for Jesse Garcia. My impression was she was feeling sorry for herself,” Whitbeck said.

“She didn’t show any emotion or remorse. There was not one iota of a tear especially when she was told she took a man’s life,” Reed said regarding Howell’s interview at the sheriff’s office.

“She had plenty of opportunity to stop and examine what she was doing. It was her choice to do what she did,” Reed said.

Jurors also said they followed the letter of the law regarding the second-degree, voluntary and involuntary murder charges they were instructed to consider by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge.

The jury deliberated about four and a half hours Friday. When the verdict was read Howell wiped her eyes and turned around to look at her father in the courtroom.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch congratulated Masterson and said the verdict was “important in this case and for the community.”

Ravitch told the jurors Howell faces 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder.

© Copyright 2014 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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